Biography of Stephen Decatur, Naval Hero of the War of 1812

Stephen Decatur
US Naval History & Heritage Command

Stephen Decatur (Jan. 5, 1779—March 22, 1820) was a U.S. naval officer who became famous for his exploits during the Tripoli War. He later served as a heroic commander in the War of 1812. He was killed in a duel by a fellow officer whose court martial he had participated in years before.

Fast Facts: Stephen Decatur

Known For: Naval exploits during the Tripoli War and War of 1812

Born: Jan. 5, 1779, in Sinepuxent, Maryland

Parents: Stephen Decatur Sr., Anne Pine

Died: March 22, 1820, in Bladensburg, Maryland

Spouse: Susan Wheeler

Notable Quote: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”

Early Life and Education

Stephen Decatur was born on Jan. 5, 1779, to Capt. Stephen Decatur Sr. and his wife, Anne Pine, in Sinepuxent, Maryland. The family moved to Philadelphia soon after and he attended the Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Young Stephen fell in love with the sea as a youngster when he accompanied his father, a naval officer during the American Revolution, on a merchant voyage in the hope that it would cure his whooping cough. Returning healthy, he expressed a desire to return to sea, dismaying his mother, who had hoped he would become a clergyman.

Decatur enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1795, but after becoming bored and unhappy with university life, he left school at age 17. With support from his father, Decatur secured employment with the shipbuilding firm Gurney and Smith in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and aided in securing timber for the keel of the frigate USS United States, which served in the War of 1812.

Early Career

Wishing to follow his father into naval service, Decatur was helped by Commodore John Barry in obtaining a midshipman's warrant. Entering the service on April 30, 1798, Decatur, coincidentally, was assigned to the frigate United States with Barry as his commanding officer. Decatur's father hired Talbot Hamilton, a former officer in the Royal Navy, to tutor Stephen in navigation and related fields.

Decatur saw action in the Caribbean during the new country's first conflict, the so-called the Quasi-War with France, as the United States captured several French privateers. After demonstrating his skills as a sailor and leader, Decatur was promoted to lieutenant in 1799. When his ship needed repairs in 1800, he transferred to the brig USS Norfolk. Decatur participated in numerous actions in the Caribbean before returning to United States later that year. At the end of the conflict in September, the Navy was downsized by Congress, and many officers were discharged from the service.

First Barbary War

One of 36 lieutenants retained by the Navy, Decatur was assigned to the frigate USS Essex in 1801. Part of Commodore Richard Dale's squadron, the Essex sailed to the Mediterranean to deal with the Barbary states that were preying upon American shipping. After subsequent service aboard the USS New York, Decatur returned to America and took command of the new brig USS Argus.

Sailing across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, he turned the ship over to Lt. Isaac Hull and was given command of the schooner USS Enterprise.

Burning the Philadelphia

On Dec. 23, 1803, the Enterprise and the frigate USS Constitution captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico after a fight. Renamed the Intrepid, the ketch was given to Decatur for a daring raid to destroy the frigate USS Philadelphia, which had run aground in Tripoli harbor and been captured. Unwilling to allow the ship to be repaired and employed by the Tripolitans, Commodore Edward Preble ordered a plan to recapture and destroy the ship. 

At 7 p.m. on Feb. 16, 1804, the Intrepid, disguised as a Maltese merchant ship flying British colors, entered Tripoli harbor with Decatur in command. To further the ruse, several Sicilian volunteers joined the crew and an Arabic-speaking pilot, Salvador Catalano, was employed. Claiming he had lost his anchors in a storm, Catalano asked permission to tie up alongside the captured frigate. As the vessels touched, Decatur stormed the Philadelphia with 60 men, taking control of the ship.

The frigate was in no condition to be sailed out of the harbor, and the Intrepid couldn't tow the larger ship, so the Philadelphia was set on fire, with Decatur the last to leave the burning vessel. Decatur and his crew evaded fire from the harbor's defenses and sailed the Intrepid into the open sea. British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called it "the most bold and daring act of the age."

In recognition of his success, Decatur was promoted to captain, making him, at 25, the youngest to hold the rank. He commanded the frigates Constitution and Congress until the war ended in 1805. Three years later he served as part of the court martial of Commodore James Barron for his role in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, which involved loss of American life in a squabble over British deserters. In 1810, he was given command of the United States, sailing it south to Norfolk, Virginia, for refitting.

War of 1812

While in Norfolk, Decatur encountered Capt. John S. Carden of the British frigate HMS Macedonian. Carden bet Decatur that the Macedonian would defeat the United States should the two ever meet in battle. When war with Britain was declared two years later, the United States joined Commodore John Rodgers' squadron at New York.

The squadron cruised the east coast until August 1812, when it put in to Boston. Returning to sea on Oct. 8, Rodgers led his ships in search of British vessels.

United States-Macedonian

Three days after departing Boston, Decatur and the United States were detached from the squadron. Sailing east on Oct. 28, Decatur spotted a British frigate 500 miles south of the Azores. As the United States closed to engage, the enemy ship was identified as the Macedonian. Decatur masterfully outmaneuvered his adversary and pummeled the British ship, forcing its surrender.

Taking possession of the Macedonian, Decatur found 104 casualties compared to 12 on the United States.

USS President

After two weeks of repairs to the Macedonian, Decatur and his prize sailed for New York, arriving to a massive victory celebration on Dec. 4, 1812. After his ships were refitted, Decatur put to sea on May 24, 1813, with the United States, the Macedonian, and the sloop Hornet. Unable to escape the British blockade, they were forced into New London, Connecticut on June 1.

Trapped in port, Decatur and the crew of the United States transferred to the frigate USS President at New York. On Jan. 14, 1815, Decatur attempted to slip through the British blockade of New York. After running aground and damaging the ship's hull, Decatur elected to return to port for repairs. As the President sailed home, it was attacked by the British frigates HMS Endymion, HMS Majestic, HMS Pomone, and HMS Tenedos.

Unable to escape due to his ship's damages, Decatur prepared for battle. In a three-hour fight, the President disabled the Endymion but after sustaining heavy casualties Decatur surrendered to the other three frigates. Taken prisoner, Decatur and his men were transported to Bermuda, where they learned that the war had ended in late December. Decatur returned to the U.S. aboard the HMS Narcissus the following month.

Later Life

As a naval hero, Decatur was given command of a squadron with orders to suppress the Barbary pirates, who had become active again during the War of 1812. Sailing to the Mediterranean, he captured the Algerian frigate Mashouda and swiftly compelled the Dey, or ruler, of Algiers to make peace. Using similar "gunboat diplomacy," Decatur compelled the other Barbary states to make peace on terms advantageous to the U.S.

In 1816, Decatur was named to the Board of Naval Commissioners in Washington, D.C. He had a home designed for him and his wife, Susan, by famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Four years later, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel for comments Decatur had made about Barron during the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. Meeting outside the city at Bladensburg Dueling Field on March 22, 1820, the two squared. Decatur, an expert shot, intended only to wound Barron. He hit Barron in the hip, but he was shot in the abdomen and died later that day at his house in Lafayette Square. Over 10,000 attended Decatur's funeral, including President James Monroe, Supreme Court members, and a majority of Congress.

Legacy

Stephen Decatur became the first national hero after the Revolutionary War. His name and legacy, like those of David Farragut, Matthew Perry, and John Paul Jones, became identified with the U.S. Navy.

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